Iowa elementary school uses therapy pig to improve learning

  • Zachary Oren Smith/Muscatine Journal via AP

    Isaac Gbalea holds a therapy pig, Frankie, wile reading at Franklin Elementary on Wednesday.

MUSCATINE, Iowa — An elementary school in eastern Iowa has found a new way to help special education students manage emotions and focus on learning: a therapy pig.

A small pig named Frankie serves as a calming mechanism for students showing emotional distress in the classroom, said Trina Hepker, a special education teacher at Franklin Elementary School in Muscatine.

When students get upset or frustrated, they’re asked to sit and read to the pig for 15 minutes. Hepker tells the Muscatine Journal the practice has been effective and is another tool “to get students back in instructional control and ready to learn.”

Principal Jason Wester said he was in disbelief when Hepker first approached him about the idea.

“I thought, ‘What are you thinking?’” Wester said. “But then she showed me the research behind it, and how it would impact student learning and how it would impact student relationships.”

Isaac Gbalea, an energetic third grader, recently sat with the white-haired pig in his lap at the school. As Isaac read, a snout quietly snored in the fold of the boy’s elbow.

“I like her,” Isaac said. “I’ve never seen a pig before.”

Hepker notes her students might not want to tell her everything and Frankie, who’s about the size of a small house cat, can be a confidant. Students also are in charge of feeding and caring for the pig, creating a sense of ownership and responsibility in the classroom.

Hepker said it’s another way of making learning special for her students.

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